Dissolved Road Salt Transport in Urban and Rural Watersheds in Massachusetts
Chloride-based deicers (NaCl, CaCl2, MgCl2), also referred to as road salt, are the most common substances used in maintaining safe roadway surfaces during the winter months. Upon application, road salt reacts with the accumulated snow or ice to form brine equilibrium solutions along the liquidus line in the salt-water system. Dissolved salts dissociate, leading to increased concentrations of the respective ions in nearby soils, surface water, and groundwater. Of the ions present in road salt, chloride has the advantage of tracking all chloride deicers at the same time and since chloride ions are conservative tracers in soils it stays unaffected by ionic exchange interferences. This study explores the mechanisms of chloride return flows by investigating chloride dissolved loads, chloride concentrations in stream waters, seasonal patterns, and changes over the course of four years in two separate watersheds in Massachusetts with differing degrees of urbanization. The chloride tracking technique used in this study is based on calibrated chloride concentrations obtained from specific conductance signals recorded every 15 minutes by automatic recording systems at two locations, one in rural central Massachusetts and the other in urban eastern Massachusetts. These systems are maintained by the USGS, which also provide the simultaneously recorded stream flow datasets. The dissolved chloride load carried by each river is calculated for each single 15-minute interval by multiplying water volume with the corresponding chloride concentration, resulting in a total of over 34,000 data points per annum per site. Hydrograph separation techniques were used to separate dissolved load transported by each river into two separate flow components, event flow resulting from precipitation events, and baseflow resulting from groundwater discharge. Well defined hydrograph baseflow supported periods yield consistent chloride concentrations independent of the season at either urban or rural study sites. Comparison of direct runoff dissolved chloride loads with the total annual dissolved loads suggests that only a small fraction of the deicers actually removed during the overland runoff events and that a minimum of 60% of the total load discharged each year in both urban and rural systems is transported by groundwater. From groundwater recharge by brines rural watersheds are currently retaining as much as 95% of the total chloride applied to roadways each year while urban and suburban watersheds may only retain 75% of the total chloride applied to roadways each year. The increased retention of chloride in rural areas is likely due to the decreased amount of chloride transported during winter seasons as event flow compared to urban watersheds.